Category Archives: Free Speech

The Age of Propaganda?

The Program on International Policy Attitudes is a respected source for international opinion research. In the wake of the 2010 U.S. elections, it conducted a survey of voters, first looking to see those voters’ perceptions of how much misinformation was “out there,” and second, to determine just how misinformed voters actually were.


The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the key issues of the campaign. Such misinformation was correlated with how people voted and their exposure to various news sources.

The website links to the questionnaire and the results, which are well worth reading, but here are some of the most consequential inaccuracies:

  • Though the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the stimulus legislation has saved or created 2.0-5.2 million jobs, only 8% of voters thought most economists who had studied it concluded that the stimulus legislation had created or saved several million jobs. Most (68%) believed that economists estimate that it only created or saved a few jobs and 20% even believed that it resulted in job losses.
  • Though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53% of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform will increase the deficit.
  • Though the Department of Commerce says that the US economy began to recover from recession in the third quarter of 2009 and has continued to grow since then, only 44% of voters thought the economy is starting to recover, while 55% thought the economy is still getting worse.
  • Though the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is occurring, 45% of voters thought most scientists think climate change is not occurring (12%) or that scientists are evenly divided (33%).

Incredibly, 86% of respondents thought taxes had gone up since 2009, although they’d actually gone down. Such is the power of propaganda.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to note the source of most of this misinformation. While there are certainly no truth-telling heros among cable news sources,

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points).

The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

In a country with freedom of speech, the only way to counter propaganda is with credible information,  persistent rebuttals of intentional misinformation, and an unflagging effort to make people understand when the emperor is naked.

We all need to participate in that effort–debunking Fox, certainly, but also being sure we aren’t giving a pass to sources that may be telling us what we want to hear.


Cue the Censors….

Remember the chant from our childhood– “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”?

Of course, that has never been true; words can and do deeply wound. But the message of the chant is nonetheless important: just as we realize that politics is “warfare by another name,” and infinitely preferable, since politics at least lets us live to fight another day, discussion and debate and even name-calling are preferable to physical attacks.

Furthermore, the notion that robust speech and debate are an essential element of the search for truth is enshrined in the Free Speech clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment. Freedom not just for ideas with which we agree, but freedom even–perhaps especially– for the idea we hate, as Justice Holmes memorably put it.

And yet, if there is one constant through American history, it is the urge to suppress ideas that offend some person or faction. Pick up any newspaper or visit any news site, and there will be reports on efforts to censor. Two recent examples:

The Kansas State Senate on Wednesday passed S.B. 56, with twenty-six Republican senators supporting the measure, and six Republicans and eight Democrats opposing. The bill is ostensibly designed to protect students by making it illegal to display or present material that is “harmful to minors,” such as pornography.

But the broad categorizations and vague language have caused concern among teachers and free speech advocates about what will and won’t be policed.

Of course, what I think is “harmful to minors” may be rather different from what you think is harmful.

Censorship efforts are often accompanied by pious expressions of concern for children; other times, however, it is very clear that opponents of particular ideas simply want to suppress those ideas.

A Pennsylvania transit system permitted churches to advertise on the sides of its buses but refused to allow a group that doesn’t believe in God to place an ad containing the word “atheists,” fearing it would offend riders, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The County of Lackawanna Transit System repeatedly rejected the ads sought by the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society, telling the group it doesn’t permit advertising space to be used as a forum for public debate. The transit system also told the group its ad might alienate riders and hurt revenue, according to the lawsuit, filed in Scranton.

The transit system allowed several churches — as well as a political candidate and a blog that linked to anti-Semitic, Holocaust denial and white supremacist websites — to advertise before the Freethought Society first tried placing its ad in 2012, the suit said.

I don’t suppose it occurs to the censors that when you demonstrate fear of an opposing idea, you are simply highlighting the weakness of your own position….



Corporations and the First Amendment

We live in an era when everything–every case decided by the Courts, every law passed by Congress or a state legislature, every encounter between police and citizens–generates frightening headlines, hysterical tweets, and multiple emails from activist organizations exhorting recipients to take action (usually involving signing a petition and sending money).

So it’s easy to become jaded, to attribute the decibel level to partisanship, or a lack of perspective or analysis. I know I increasingly find myself thinking “just chill out. This isn’t the end of the world. Get a grip.”

Some things, however, prove to be every bit as worrisome as the scolds and screamers predicted. A grim assessment from a recent Harvard study suggests that the consequences of Citizens United and the line of cases leading up to it have been even more damaging than we were warned at the time.

Some of the study’s key findings include

While the First Amendment was intended to protect individual freedom of religion, speech and assembly, as well as a free press, corporations have begun to displace individuals as its direct beneficiaries. This “shift from individual to business First Amendment cases is recent but accelerating.”

Over time the high court has shown an increasing willingness to rule in favor of corporate interests, as a result “reducing law’s predictability, impairing property rights, and increasing the share of the economy devoted to rent-seeking rather than productive activity.”…

The ability for corporations to obtain relief from the courts gives them incentive to “place bets not on new technologies or marketing strategies, but on legal and political ‘innovation’” to protect markets they have and exclude new entrants. This also has the effect of causing regulatory agencies to reduce their efforts, because enforcing existing laws becomes increasingly difficult….

American public discourse tends to be very bipolar and “zero sum.” Policies are either right or wrong, good or bad. A right accorded to X must mean diminished rights for Y.

In the real world, however, the goal of policy is more often than not to achieve an appropriate balance between or among competing interests, all of whom are entitled to have their rights respected. Most Americans would agree that businesses have the right to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and that the law should respect the fiction of corporate “personhood” in the contexts for which that personhood was originally created.

It is when Court decisions and legislative actions create troubling imbalances of power, we risk substantial damage to our social ecosystem. Cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby have upset that balance, empowering corporations while disempowering individual citizens.

“These findings present a challenge to the view, articulated by the majority and concurrences in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, that corporations and other business entities should be understood ‘simply’ as aggregations or associations of individuals, and so should not be distinguished from them for purposes of First Amendment analysis,” the author writes in his conclusion, continuing: “The corporate takeover of the First Amendment represents a pure redistribution of power over law with no efficiency gain — ‘rent seeking’ in economic jargon. That power is taken from ordinary individuals with identities and interests as voters, owners and employees, and transferred to corporate bureaucrats pursuing narrowly framed goals with other people’s money. This is as radical a break from Anglo-American business and legal traditions as one could find in U.S. history.”

Sometimes, the decibels are appropriate.

Lie Detectors and the First Amendment

Anyone who watches dramatized detective shows–especially those of the CSI variety–knows that the real starring role is played by technology: cool, highly sophisticated devices that virtually no real-life crime lab can afford. These shows are fun, but accuracy isn’t the strong suit of storylines that need to be resolved in an hour’s time. (Fingerprint identification isn’t the slam dunk that Abby’s computer makes it seem on NCIS.)

Even the popular culture shows that don’t rely on “gee whiz” gadgetry, however, routinely use lie detectors. So the general public can be forgiven for thinking that lie detectors work.

They don’t. At least, not reliably. As Morton Tavel has noted

In 2003, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), after a comprehensive review, issued a report entitled “The Polygraph and Lie Detection,” stating that the majority of polygraph research was “unreliable, unscientific and biased”, concluding that 57 of approximately 80 research studies—upon which the American Polygraph Association relies—were significantly flawed. It concluded that, although the test performed better than chance in catching lies—although far from perfect—perhaps most importantly, they found the test produced too many false positives.

In other words, nervous people who are telling the truth can easily fail the test. And many do.

This lack of reliability is widely understood in the legal community and among police officers; it’s why most courtrooms don’t admit lie detector results into evidence. It’s also why several ex-police officers have spoken out against their use, and why a subset of them has helped job applicants and others who face “screening” by detectors learn techniques that will help them pass.

And that brings us to a fascinating question. Is helping people pass a lie detector test a crime? What if you aren’t just helping Nervous Nellie tell the truth in a way that won’t trip the machine, but you are helping Sneaky Sam lie?

Douglas Gene Williams, a former Oklahoma City police polygraphist and the proprietor of,  has been teaching individuals how to pass polygraph tests since 1979. He has recently been indicted for mail fraud and witness tampering for allegedly “persuad[ing] or attempting to persuade” two undercover agents posing as customers “to conceal material facts and make false statements with the intent to influence, delay, and prevent the testimony” of the undercover agents “in an official proceeding….”

Williams’ defenders say this is entrapment, that the attempt to shut him down is implicit acknowledgment that the tests don’t work, and that Williams has a free speech right to criticize their use by demonstrating their manifest unreliability. Others–including many polygraph critics and yours truly–say that helping guilty people fool the tests goes beyond advocacy, and is a bridge too far.

What say you?


Read My Lips: No Heckler’s Veto

I sure wish those Faux News pundits who claim to revere the Constitution actually knew what was in it.

Evidently, Satanists in Oklahoma City are planning to hold a “black mass.” Whatever that is. Now, insofar as we can tell, these folks have been entirely peaceful–however much their views may offend  adherents of more traditional doctrines, the only “harm” they’ve inflicted has been to religious sensibilities.

Enter know-nothing Tucker Carlson.

Tucker Carlson opined that the Satanic leader “clearly just wants publicity.” He asked if “Christians are playing into his plan” by protesting. In response to whether Christian should ignore him, Fr. Morris said that everybody needs to do what they think is best, such as talking about it on Fox. He encouraged prayer for the Satanic leader’s soul. When Clayton Morris interjected that the city is standing on free speech, Fr. Morris asked “what about if I want to desecrate a Koran…and speak pro-Nazi stuff right in front of my church and get people all fired up on a public sidewalk.”  (The Satanic mass is not being held on the street). Despite his (and Fox’s) belief about limited government, he opined that “government has to step in and say you can’t incite violence in the name of free speech.” The chyron validated his point: “First Amendment Foul, City: Constitution Protects Right to Gather.”

This approach–oh, no, we can’t let [fill in the blank] speak, because what they have to say will anger people and spark civil unrest. We have to shut them down in order to preserve the public peace!–was the argument used across the American south to shut down people like Martin Luther King. It’s called the Heckler’s Veto, because it allows “hecklers”–people who disagree with what is being said–to veto the message.

The courts have consistently ruled that they can’t do that. The message from the bench has been clear: If the authorities are genuinely worried about breaches of the peace, they need to beef up security, not shut the speaker down.

Isn’t it interesting how many pompous frauds want the protections offered by the Bill of Rights for themselves–but don’t want those same rules applied to others?

I have news for Tucker Carlson: It’s only freedom when it applies to everyone. Even people you don’t like. If the government gets to pick and choose who gets to assert a right, it’s no longer a right. It’s a privilege.

And privileges can be revoked.